Concerns in Canada as nuclear energy loses steam

Last week Turkey put into cold storage plans to build the country's first nuclear power station.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Turkey's decision last week to cancel the construction of a $2.5 billion nuclear plant was hailed by one Canadian environmental group as a "death knell" for the industry."

But Canadian nuclear-power officials insist that reports of the industry demise are exaggerated. Turkey's decision was "disappointing, but not surprising," says Larry Shewchuk, a spokesman for AECL, the government-owned nuclear engineering firm.

The industry's hopeful view of future demand for its CANDU reactors around the world is built on an assumption that nuclear power will be embraced as a "green" alternative in the years ahead.

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This view is being challenged - to put it mildly - however true it is that many countries are looking for alternatives to coal- and gas-fired power plants in order to cut emissions of greenhouse gases under international environmental guidelines.

The indefinite postponement of the Turkish project, to have been built at Akkuyu Bay on the country's Mediterranean coast, was only the latest of a string of reasons not to be bullish on nuclear power. David Martin, a researcher at the Nuclear Awareness Project, in Uxbridge, Ontario, called the Turkish decision the "death knell for the international nuclear industry."

Few projects on board

Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, says, "We couldn't be more pleased with the Turkish government's decision."

The Akkuyu project was one of very few projects around the globe even on the drawing boards. AECL was competing against a Franco-German consortium (Framatome and Siemens) and a US-British-Japanese partnership (Westinghouse, British Nuclear Fuels, and Mitsubishi).

China, hitherto one of the strongest customers for nuclear plants, is reported to be having second thoughts about its energy policy. Germany, which draws about 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power, has decided to phase out its nuclear power stations by the mid-2020s.

Mr. Shewchuk is thinking long term, too: He sees Indonesia and the Philippines as eventual customers, in 10 or 20 years. He acknowledges it may take that long for these countries "to educate their citizenry" to the point that they can develop the regulatory infrastructure and seismological expertise to tender for a nuclear power plant. "It can be a very long process. The Turkish process took 15 to 20 years."

The Akkuyu Bay project would have been Turkey's first nuclear power plant. It drew criticism from environmentalists - who say there are possible risks because the site is prone to earthquakes. and from Greece - which was concerned about the prospect of its longtime Mediterranean rival acquiring any nuclear expertise.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit ascribed cancellation of the tender to economic pressures - the country is under an austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund. He didn't rule out nuclear energy altogether but said that Turkey might wait for a new generation of reactor designs to become available.

Environmentally friendly alternative

Meanwhile, signatories to the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gases are trying to figure out whether nuclear power can be considered a "clean development mechanism" and whether nuclear power qualifies for "carbon credits," that is, whether nuclear power can be construed to be replacing a certain amount of carbon-dioxide emissions.

To Shewchuk, this makes perfect sense. "Environmental groups want clean air," he says. "But 1,900 Canadians die of smog every year" - smog that could have been avoided with a higher reliance on nuclear energy, he says. For countries in the developing world, which need a lot of electricity now, conservation and renewable energy can't fill the bill.

Martin counters that with its routine radioactive emissions and production of waste, as well as the risk of catastrophic accidents and possibility of leading to nuclear weapons production, nuclear power plants should have no place on the roster of "clean development mechanisms."

Antinuclear activists and many others question whether AECL is really worth the C$100 million (US $67 million) it gets from the government every year. The money is widely described as a subsidy, but AECL officials insist it is a research grant unconnected with its efforts to sell reactors. AECL hasn't sold a new reactor since 1996, when it won the contracts for two currently under construction in China. Shewchuk says South Korea is planning four new reactors. "We expect to hear by the end of the year" whether AECL will win contracts for one or two of them. AECL is also hopeful that Romania may want to build another reactor.

In 1995, the investment house Nesbitt Burns did a review of AECL's operations and concluded that it needed to sell nine reactors over 10 years. That target looks unlikely to be met, but AECL officials say that that doesn't matter, since they are getting more repair and refurbishment business of late - C$550 million (about US $375 million) last year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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